Playing It Safe Won't Work for Jeb Bush

Heading to Europe was a boring choice—and boring is what the former Florida governor can least afford to be.

Fabrizio Bensch / AP
On Tuesday, Jeb Bush ventured abroad for the first time as a de facto presidential candidate. He began his tour in Berlin, which was a mistake.
First, going to Berlin triggered comparisons with the euphoric, 200,000-person greeting the city gave candidate Barack Obama in 2008. Second, and interconnectedly, it triggered stories about how little Germans like the Bush family. But third, and most importantly, going to Europe is boring. And boring is the thing Jeb can least afford to be.
Jeb’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s too moderate. It’s that his candidacy evokes so little passion. While many rich Republicans feel loyal to the Bush family, few ordinary Republicans feel inspired by the prospect of electing a third Bush, especially since they don’t have particularly fond memories of the first two. In addition, Jeb lacks charisma. He’s among the worst public speakers in the GOP field.
Well-funded, establishment-backed candidates who evoke little passion can win presidential nominations. Think about Walter Mondale in 1984, Bob Dole in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, or Mitt Romney in 2012. But they need opponents who either can’t raise enough money to compete or exhibit some deficiency that causes them to flame out. That could still happen this year. Right now, however, Bush faces at least two competitors—Marco Rubio and Scott Walker—who are raising substantial sums and show no signs of imploding. And both men—Rubio because of his immigrant success story and personal charisma, and Walker because of the ferocity of his battles with the left—energize grassroots Republicans in a way that Bush does not.
Bush’s challenge vaguely resembles Hillary Clinton’s. She, too, strikes many as an overly familiar face. She, too, is a lackluster orator. But Hillary has, so far, energized her campaign by taking unexpectedly bold positions on issues: an end to mass incarceration, a constitutional amendment on campaign finance, a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Bush should do something similar. He needs to do bold and surprising things, things that define his independent identity and puncture the idea that he is yesterday’s man. One such idea would be to endorse gay marriage. Yes, according to a new Pew Research poll, almost two-thirds of Republicans still oppose it. But almost three-quarters acknowledge that it’s inevitable nonetheless. And gay marriage enjoys the support of almost 60 percent of Republican Millennials.
It’s a good bet that by 2020, the Republican candidate for president will be a supporter of gay marriage. By taking the plunge now, Jeb would gin up some excitement among the young and make the press swoon. He’d make Rubio and Walker look cautious and behind the times.
Yes, such a leap would hurt Jeb among the social conservatives who wield so much influence in Iowa. But there are growing signs that he will make only a token effort there anyway. For Jeb, New Hampshire will matter far more. And in that libertarian bastion, a plurality of Republicans already supports gay marriage. What’s more, since Independents can vote in New Hampshire’s Republican primary, bucking the Christian right could prove as beneficial to Jeb’s fortunes as it was to John McCain’s in 2000.
Right now, however, Bush doesn’t seem poised to do anything nearly that daring. After all, he’s made Europe the site of his first foreign trip as a candidate. For presidential contenders, going to Europe is safe and predictable; standard fare. Were Jeb inclined to shake things up, he’d have chosen Latin America, a continent presidential contenders almost never visit. Doing so would have highlighted his fluent Spanish and knowledge of the region. And it would have displayed his determination not to tread the safe, conventional, frontrunner’s path—a path that, right now, is leading him nowhere good.